Could new rules on fossils bury citizen paleontology?

Forest Service wants to limit 'casual collecting' to 25 pounds a year

Brett Prettyman and Brian Maffly / The Salt Lake Tribune /

Published Jul 24, 2013 at 05:00AM

Some kids grow up collecting baseball cards.

Glade Gunther spent his family time as a youngster collecting fossils.

Not at a museum play pit. Not in a backyard sandbox but on remote public lands.

Gunther has unearthed ossified remains of ammonites, trilobites and other ancient invertebrates that ended up in museums, research facilities and classrooms across the world. Now he and other amateur collectors say their ability to contribute to knowledge of ancient life is jeopardized by the way public land agencies are interpreting the 2009 Paleontological Resources Preservation Act.

The U.S. Forest Service recently gathered public comments on proposed regulations that limit “casual collecting.” The regulations cover most fossils from dinosaurs to leaves found on federal lands. But it is restrictions on invertebrates, those spineless creatures that proliferated in Cambrian seas, which have amateurs crying foul.

The Forest Service rules would limit collectors’ annual take to 25 pounds, or about what fits in a one-gallon bucket. In a calendar year, they could collect no more than five specimens of any one type of invertebrate. A fossil hunter could exhaust that limit before lunch, critics say.

“You can’t get people interested in science if they can’t go out and pick things up. It is going to make a whole bunch of law-abiding citizens, myself included, criminals,” Gunther said. “Bureaucrats sitting in a room who never collected a fossil in their lives write these rules.”

Those bureaucrats are paleontologists Scott Foss, who is helping draft the Bureau of Land Management’s fossil rules, and Mike Fracasso, of the Forest Service. Both have lots of field experience.

Foss agreed that amateurs and Gunther in particular have advanced invertebrate paleontology, but federal law mandates the agencies to “actively manage” fossil resources on public lands.

“That means they have to partner with us to continue. And we hope they do continue,” said Foss, BLM’s chief Utah paleontologist, who recently moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as senior national paleontologist.

“Amateurs have done an enormous contribution to the science, a lot more than the agency has done. There is not an intention to stop that.”

The 2009 law requires the agencies to coordinate their regulations and the BLM’s are due out for public comment soon. Other federal land agencies, namely National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service, do not allow collecting without a permit.

Fracasso was not available last week, and the Forest Service could not provide anyone else to comment.

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